What Is Comprehensible Input–Really?

Good news.  A lot of Latin teachers make reference to Comprehensible Input. So many that I think we can call this a movement.

Bad news.  The way some people use “comprehensible input” seems to indicate that we are still trying to understand what it really means and at times getting it wrong.

It is good news that so many of us reference Comprehensible Input. CI has become a helpful if not also challenging way to step out of the confines of traditional Latin teaching and open up the wonders of this language to many more students than we once were able to do.

It is bad news that what Comprehensible Input means eludes us for the same reason–it really can help and challenge us to step out of the confines of traditional Latin teaching and open up the wonders of this language to many more students than we once were able to do.

What Comprehensible Input is not

CI is not active Latin. While the term “active Latin” can itself be an elusive term, I generally understand it to mean actively using Latin as a language for communication.  It almost always focuses on speaking Latin in various gatherings, formal and informal, as well as in the classroom.  In most of these experiences, Latin is employed immersively, and those who participate in it agree, formally and informally, not to use their first language. In the active Latin immersion programs that I have participated in and know about, the traditional assumption that one must know one’s Latin grammar in order to participate in active Latin gatherings is well ensconced.  Speaking is a form of language output, and CI recognizes by its very name that input always precedes output. Active Latin as practiced among us certainly depends on the dynamics of CI in ways that I suspect are completely overlooked by participants in active Latin gatherings, but CI is not “active Latin.”

CI is not communicative Latin. “Communicative language” is one of those terms that has come to mean many things. In general, it seems to mean that teaching with communicative Latin means using Latin to communicate.  In this respect, it is a lot like active Latin though likely more confined to classrooms rather than Latin speaking gatherings. Bill Van Patten has done us an extraordinary favor in defining the communicative classroom” as one involving the expression, interpretation and negotiation of meaning with a purpose in the context of the classroom (p. 13, While We’re On the Topic). In this respect, all of the observations made by the theory of CI are at play, but Van Patten himself is clear that when most people talk about a “communicative activity” they mean something else–something more like forced output or a classroom where no L1 is allowed.

CI is not one among many approaches by which you can achieve the same thing. I will take this up below in my discussion of what CI is, but the claim that the outcomes of CI can be achieved in many other ways is simply evidence of a serious misunderstanding of CI.  It seems to betray the idea that CI is some set of external activities and practices which drive an L2 lesson plan.  What this claim really requires is the answer to what “thing” CI is attempting to achieve or, in fact, what other “things” other approaches are attempting to achieve.  More below.

CI is not a method. A method is a set of procedures for accomplishing or approaching something. CI is not a set of procedures, although it lends itself to creating many procedures.

CI is not a set of activities or tricks. Activities and tricks are other words for procedures in a language classroom, and as already stated, CI is not a set of procedures. So, CI is not something you can “add to your bag of tricks or toolbox.”

So, what is Comprehensible Input? CI is actually involved in most of the things listed above, which can only make this more confusing, so let’s see if we can parse this out.

CI is a theory describing how human beings gain ability in language.

Stephen Krashen proposed originally five hypotheses that came to be known in all as Comprehensible Input. Based on research into the human ability to develop language, he made five claims about how that happens for adults learning second languages. What are those claims? All italicized quotations are taken from Krashen’s work, updated in 2009, Principles and Practices in Second Language Acquisition and which can be found at his website collection of his works.

  1.  Adults have two distinct and independent ways of developing competence in a second language. The first way he calls “acquisition.” This is a subconscious process in which the person is largely unaware that they are picking up the language as they receive it from others around them. The second way he calls “learning.”  This is the conscious, explicit approach of learning things about the language in which the person is aware of attempting to know things about how the language works. When an adult develops competence in a second language BOTH of these ways are ultimately involved, and in our traditional Latin approaches, we have largely focused on the second even though there are moments when the first one is happening unbeknownst to both teachers and students. Teachers whose work is informed by CI aim to focus on setting up a variety of activities and experiences in which the first becomes most significant to the process. It also includes at appropriate times the second way. I often hear teachers say that they use the terms acquisition and learning synonymously.  The theory of Comprehensible Input uses them distinctively and not at all synonymously. To say that one’s work is informed by CI is to recognize this distinction in the planning and teaching of second language.
  2. The acquisition of grammatical structures proceeds in a predictable order. Krashen characterized this as perhaps the most exciting development in recent years.  He documents multiple studies which show that adults learning second languages acquire grammatical structures in particular patterns even while showing occasional variation on those patterns. This is an important thing to notice:  Krashen says that adults ACQUIRE grammatical patterns in a certain natural order.  He does not say that they LEARN those grammatical patterns.  So, the observation is that in the first way of developing language–acquisition–there is a natural order to those grammatical structures.  That’s why even if one knew the natural order for Latin acquisition, creating a grammar syllabus to parallel it would not hasten the acquisition.  Learning and acquisition are different aspects of developing language. If teachers understand this aspect of the human development of language, we can observe what our students seem to be acquiring in grammatical structures and when, generally speaking. It is my own observation that acquiring noun/adjective inflections comes very slowly and later than verb inflections, but that is just the observation of one teacher.
  3. Acquisition and learning are used in very specific ways. Acquisition is responsible for initiating output–speaking and writing, and is responsible for our fluency in the language.  Learning has only one role–that of the monitor or editor.  Once we are able to produce (speak and write) the language we then use what we learn about the language to edit it.  This is a significant observation leading to decisions about the delay of teaching about the grammatical system in Latin. Knowing the rules of grammar are only useful for editing the language that one can already produce, and production of language (speaking and writing) are the work of acquisition. Those who do not understand what CI is often declare that CI influenced teachers “don’t teach grammar.” That is utterly not true and a gross misunderstanding of the theory of Comprehensible Input. Krashen offers another caveat in this observation of how human beings acquire language.  When the internal monitor is over developed, it interferes in the acquisition and production of the language.  I find no greater testimony to this observation than the reluctance of Latin teachers (almost all traditionally trained) to speak Latin in front of other Latin teachers. The fear of making a mistake and having it publicly noticed is paralyzing.
  4. In order to make progress from one stage of acquisition to another, the student must understand the input (listening or reading) where the focus is on meaning and not form. Krashen restates it this way: We acquire, in other words, only when we understand language that contains structure that is “a little beyond” where we are now. Krashen notes that this is the newest and most important of the hypotheses, and he observes that it will have the largest impact on both theoretical and practical aspects of language pedagogy.  This is why, in my opinion, people often erroneously think of CI as a method. CI is a theory, but this particular principle of CI has strong impact on the many applications that teachers will make of it. Krashen’s own words are worth quoting here at some length:The input hypothesis runs counter to our usual pedagogical approach in second and foreign language teaching. As Hatch (1978a) has pointed out, our assumption has been that we first learn structures, then practice using them in communication, and this is how fluency develops. The input hypothesis says the opposite. It says we acquire by “going for meaning” first, and as a result, we acquire structure! (For discussion of first language acquisition, see MacNamara, 1972.)In summary, this fourth hypothesis has two parts: Input pertains to acquisition, and progress in acquisition happens when the input is understandable at a level slightly beyond where the student currently is. For the Latin teacher who has up to this point been thinking that they have no interest in students speaking and writing (output), it is well worth noting that CI principles focus on input (listening and reading) as the engine that drives acquisition.
  5. Acquirers vary with respect to the strength or level of their Affective Filters. This hypothesis is built on prior work that notes how a student’s affective variables such as motivation, self-confidence and anxiety impact language acquisition. Krashen notes that with regard to language acquisition even if the input is comprehensible a student with high anxiety, low self-confidence and low motivation will not acquire the language as successfully as a student whose affective filter is low.  This hypothesis also observes that input (the fourth hypothesis) is still the primary cause of acquisition of language, but the affective variables can impede or support that process.
  6. Compelling means that the input is so interesting you forget that it is in another language.It means you are in a state of “flow” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). In this follow up to his original five hypotheses, Krashen adds this “compelling hypothesis” noting that acquisition is more successful when the input which must be comprehensible is also interesting.  But, it is most successful when it is, in fact, compelling as he defines here.I have delayed to the end the driving question: what is the goal of employing these principles of Comprehensible Input?  The goal of those who embrace Comprehensible Input as a set of principles for that understanding is to advance the acquisition of the language they teach. After working with these principles for 20+ years now, I can make some of my own observations about the use and application of these principles in classroom practices and in conversations about what we do as Latin teachers.
  • The six hypotheses are research driven claims about how human beings acquire languages–even this ancient language of Latin.
  • If helping students acquire Latin is not at least a part of your aim, the principles of CI are of no help to you.
  • Most of us, regardless of how we teach or of what we believe about language learning recognize some aspects of these principles in what we do and likely that they call into question some other aspects of what we do.
  • Methodology based on CI principles develops when a teacher affirms that they want to help student acquire the language and then asks: what things can I do that reinforces these 6 principles?
  • Here are some basic beginning places toward methods that adhere to CI principles.  Beginning places which lead in myriad of ways but which always point back to the 6 principles which are observations about how human beings acquire language.
    • I will focus on acquisition in the early years and add learning in the later years.
    • There is a certain order in which students will acquire the structures of the language, and that depends on the input they receive from me.
    • Teaching them grammar rules is only helpful after they are able to speak and write some Latin and does not help them acquire the language.
    • If I overdo or emphasize grammar too early, I create a barrier to acquisition.
    • The central focus of my role as teacher is to give students understandable messages in Latin (by speaking and through readings).
    • Anything I can do to lower anxiety, build self-confidence and encourage motivation will help with language acquisition.
    • I must constantly work to secure and provide understandable messages that make use of content that my students will find compelling.

Returning to these principles iterum iterumque teaches me how incremental my own understanding of them is, how powerful they are, and how informative they can be to my classroom practices. The fact that too often Latin teachers make inaccurate statements about CI tells me that already even they have felt the impact that this set of principles holds for us and that they, too, are struggling to understand them. I do get the occasional dismissal as I did recently from someone whose work I respect, that I should stop quibbling over whatever we want to call this.  That is frustrating, of course, and even that is a sign that CI is making its impact.

I shall continue to “quibble” about what these principles are, why they are significant and how they may be applied if for no other reason than this.  It has become clear that when I align my practices, methods and activities in the classroom with CI principles, all kinds of learners are able to make progress in Latin. Not only is this vital to the future of Latin in our academic landscape, it’s a vital and central principle of human equity and justice.

Bob Patrick